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iPhone 4S vs DSLR: Apple’s latest model takes on the big boys.

14 Oct Posted by Matt in News, Reviews |
iPhone 4S vs DSLR: Apple’s latest model takes on the big boys.


The original iPhone 4 had a great camera that could hold it’s own against a modest point and shoot, but the new iPhone 4S promises much more. We’ve already seen some of Apple’s own example photos, but today we got our hands on the new model to see what it will do in a real world situation. To add a bit of spice? We’re pitching it head to head with a Digital SLR.

The title of best phone camera ever could be within easy reach for the iPhone 4S, but taking on a serious digital camera is a different game altogether.  This is how we did it…

Canon EOS 500DThe setup

Not all Digital SLRs are equal, so we’re being upfront about our setup for this task. As the iPhone is a mass market consumer product, we’ve opted to pitch it against a mid-range consumer DSLR that’s typical of what a keen amateur photographer might own.

Our Setup:
  • Canon EOS 500D (Digital Rebel T1i)
  • Canon 18-55mm Kit Lens

That’s it, theres nothing special here. This is an ‘out of the box’ comparison using a popular DSLR bundle you .

The iPhone we’re using is an iPhone 4S 32Gb on the 3 network, which costs £35/month for 2000 minutes, 5000 texts, and unlimited data.

So here are the two cameras on paper:

iphone 4s header
iPhone 4S
500d Table Header
Canon 500D/T1i
Resolution 8 Megapixels 15.1 Megapixels
Sensor Type Backlit CMOS
Apple A5 Processor
Canon DIGIC 4
Lens 4.28mm (fixed)
Equivalent approx 35mm
18-55mm (zoom)
Equivalent 28.8-88mm
Max Aperture f/2.4 f/3.5 (with kit lens)
Face Detection Yes Yes
Hardware Shutter Yes (electronic) Yes (mechanical)
Video Mode 1080p Full HD 1080p Full HD
Autofocus Contrast Based 9-Point Cross-Type sensor
Flash LED Pop-up strobe, 13m range
Image Stabilisation Electronic Optical (lens-based)



iPhone vs DSLRWe wanted this to be a real world test, so everything we’re using is standard and no tripods, flash guns, filters, or any other accessories were used. The shots are all taken hand-held using the stock zoom lens, like 90% of DSLR users would do anyway.

We’ve tested both cameras in a variety of situations designed to simulate how you might use an everyday camera – good light, bad light, landscapes, people – we tried to cover as much as we could.

Unless otherwise stated, the pictures below were taken with the zoom lens on the 500D set to around 20mm, to give a focal length approximately equivalent to that of the fixed lens on the iPhone 4S.  The images have been re-sized for this page, but the full resolution versions are available for viewing on our Flickr page.

Broad Daylight:

So we start in broad daylight.  Good light and a wide aperture for both cameras should see no problems here…

Canon EOS 500D

Canon EOS 500D

iPhone 4S

iPhone 4S

Both of these are perfectly respectable shots, although the Canon has rendered a more neutral colour cast than the somewhat overly warm iPhone 4S shot.

If we zoom in to 100% then things get a bit more interesting.

Canon 500D 100% Crop iPhone 4S 100% Crop

For starters, the extra resolution of the Canon means you get a tighter crop at 100%, but ignoring that the 500D has captured a better controlled image.  There is visible noise on the iPhone 4S shot (right), even though the iPhone actually used a lower ISO speed (ISO 64 rather than the ISO 100 of the 500D).

So, for shot number one, the DSLR has a clear lead.

iPhone 4S vs DSLR

In the second shot the DSLR has once again provided a more neutral white balance, though with HDR turned on the 4S manages to capture more detail in the bright white building in the background.

iPhone 4S vs DSLR

Finally, the shot above is interesting.  Technically the DSLR has rendered this image better with a more neutral white balance, but I actually think the warmth the 4S has given the image really adds something.

Close-Up (Macro) Shots

Neither the iPhone 4S or the included 18-55mm zoom lens attached to our DSLR are particularly geared up for macro photography, but at some point you’d probably try a shot like this with either.

Canon 500D Macro Flowers

Canon 500D

iPhone 4S Macro Flowers

iPhone 4S

The iPhone actually managed to focus closer than the DSLR, giving a slightly better crop. However, the DSLR does a better job of isolating the flowers from the background.  In this image both cameras have provided a good white balance, but it’s the 4S that provides the better colour saturation.

iPhone 4S vs DSLR

In the second image, once again it’s the iPhone that provides the more pleasing image.  The deeper shadows and stronger saturation of the iPhone make for a more punchy photo, whilst the DSLR has overexposed some of the highlights.

Zoom Zoom

With the new iOS 5 software, zooming on the iPhone is now just a case of pinching the touchscreen (rather than dragging a slider as before).  The thing is the iPhone 4S doesn’t actually have a zoom lens, so this is just digital zoom.

To demonstrate this limitation, for this first shot both cameras had approximately the same focal length:

iPhone 4S vs DSLR Church

Both these shots are quite respectable. Once again the 4S has gone for a warmer colour balance than the DSLR, but I’m not sure that’s a completely bad thing.

Anyway, for the next shot I zoomed the DSLR as far as I could – to 55mm focal length – and took a shot.  I used the digital zoom on the iPhone too, and then cropped the DSLR image to match the approximate field of view.

Canon 500D - Zoomed & Cropped

Canon 500D

iPhone 4S - Digitally Zoomed

iPhone 4S

This is where the iPhone 4S starts to show weakness, as the digital zoom soon starts to show artefacts.

Tricky Lighting Situations

Tricky lighting is something that can confuse even the most advanced cameras, so it’s somewhat of a harsh test for a phone camera.  Nonetheless, here’s how the iPhone 4S stacked up…

Canon 500D - High contrast shot

Canon 500D

iPhone 4S - High contrast shot

iPhone 4S

The iPhone 4S does better in the shadows here, thanks to the built-in HDR mode.  The DSLR has used a centre-weighted exposure setting to avoid blowing out the highlights too badly, but whilst the shot is fine it lacks the shadow detail of the 4S image.

This next image highlighted an interesting issue…

iPhone vs DSLR - Tricky Lighting

Now the DSLR hasn’t done a perfect job here; the sky is blown out on the left hand side and it could do with a bit more contrast, but the iPhone has completely made a hash of the exposure.

Low Light

Whilst low light situations don’t provide the same challenges as the lighting above, it is still an area that many cameras fall down badly on.  The photo below was taken in poor indoor lighting, with a small amount of artificial light spilling in from the next room.  Both cameras coped well – the DSLR opted for a shutter speed of 1/25s at ISO 1600, whereas the iPhone 4S chose 1/15s at ISO 400.  Both were using their maximum apertures of f/3.5 and f/2.4 respectively.

iPhone 4S Low Light


500D 100% Low Light Crop iPhone 100% Low Light Crop

Once again the larger DSLR image (left) has handled noise slightly better than the iPhone 4S (right), but there isn’t a huge amount in it.  For a static subject like this the 1/15s shutter speed used by the iPhone hasn’t been an issue, but for moving subjects it could be an issue.

Image Quality Verdict:

For a phone camera, the iPhone 4S is pretty remarkable.  At times during our test it out-performed the DSLR in terms of giving us a straight from the camera image that was more pleasing to the eye, but ultimately the DSLR was more consistent.

The HDR mode, first seen in the original iPhone 4, has been what’s given the 4S the edge at some points.  For those with the skill and time, correcting the RAW files from a DSLR to give the same effect is reasonably straightforward, but it’s something few people will bother to do for their holiday snaps.

The DSLR wins, but not by as much as you might have thought.

iPhone 4 - Canon 600D Breaker


On paper the iPhone 4S trumps the DSLR when it comes to video, as whilst the Canon will record in Full HD it can only do so at 20fps.  For smooth video the 500D must step down to 720p, whereas the iPhone can record at 30fps in Full HD. But resolution isn’t everything, so how do the two stack up?

For your everyday video shooter, the iPhone 4S is actually the best option in our opinion. The video above, at 1080p, shows it to be sharper and better exposed (try reading the text on the poster behind the two men in both shots). Digital SLRs are great for creating expensive-looking cinematic video, but they all suffer from focusing issues that make them less user-friendly than both the iPhone 4S or a dedicated video camera.

The iPhone 4S is also easily hooked up to an external mic, a feature that most mid-range consumer DSLRs (including the 500D) lack.

Video Verdict:

This one’s a tie in our book; for ultimate quality and an elegant film look you can’t beat a DSLR, but for the casual snapper who wants to capture good quality clips quickly the iPhone 4S puts many dedicated video cameras to shame.

Want to push us into a decision?  Full HD recording, an external mic option, and ease of use , would probably give the iPhone 4S the edge.


New for the iPhone 4S is the ability to open the camera app right from the lock screen, and whilst it’s a small change it shows Apple is listening when users complain about how taking photos with their phone is slower than using a normal camera.   The DSLR of course is near instant, too.

Judging usability is of course at least partially subjective, and whether you prefer a shiny touch screen or some physical buttons ultimately boils down to personal choice.  One thing I will say is that I find having the physical buttons and dials on the DSLR makes changing settings much quicker, even though I’ve been using an iPhone for nearly three years. Sometimes you just can’t beat a dedicated button I guess.

That said, even though the 500D boasts a pretty good high resolution 3″ screen, the slightly larger and higher density retina display on the iPhone 4S pips it for giving extra detail when you’re reviewing your images.

The biggest usability issue with the iPhone as a camera though is that it can be very hard to see the glossy screen in bright sunlight, making composition tricky.  The DSLR has an optical viewfinder, which works in any conditions, making it much easier to shoot in bright light.

Usability Verdict:

The dedicated array of buttons make changing settings a breeze on a DSLR, but only once you’ve got used to what they all do.  There is far less control available on the iPhone 4S, but even a complete iPhone novice can be up and running taking great looking snaps straight away.

For pure simplicity and elegance of user-interface, the iPhone 4S wins this round.

Portrait Breaker


When you hear about processing digital photos you probably think Photoshop, but actually, if you shoot JPEG at least, the processing of your images starts long before you load them onto your laptop.

Canon DIGIC 4Your camera has to make decisions about the white balance, saturation, contrast, and all manner of other things before it can turn what your image sensor captures into a picture that you can see. Why is this relevant? Well for starters it this process has a big impact on what your photos look like, and secondly Apple say that the image processing built into the new A5 processor is “just as good as the ones found in DSLR cameras”.

Some people do some manual post-processing to all their photos, whether it’s a quick adjustment in iPhoto or a full retouch in Photoshop, but most of us just don’t have the time to do that for all our images.  This is where the original iPhone 4 got it so right; it wasn’t so much about capturing great images, as providing you great images.

What do we mean by this I hear you cry!?  Well, the processing on the iPhone 4S is not so ‘true to life’ as the DSLR, but Apple have gone for your eyes whereas Canon have gone for a realistic image.

Ultimately, this means that often the iPhone pictures look more appealing, with strong colours, great contrast, and excellent saturation.  These are the sort of adjustments a keen photographer is likely to want to do in Photoshop anyway. In fact you can think of every photo you take on the 4S as having gone through iPhoto and having had the ‘enhance’ button applied to it if you like.

New to iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S is built-in image editing too, allowing you to do some basic editing such as cropping, red-eye removal, and some one-click enhancement.  This means you may significantly reduce your reliance on Photoshop or other image editing software for basic tasks.

Processing Verdict

I suspect this is going to be quite divisive;  on the one hand Canon are providing a solid amount of processing that gives a true to life image with the potential for you to post-process it further if you wish, whereas on the other hand Apple are giving you images that really ‘pop’ straight out the camera.

For the mere fact that most people don’t bother to post-process their images, this round is going to reward Apple’s boldness in creating a processing algorithm that makes your photos instantly appealing.

Our Verdict

Apple iPhone4S

If your interest in using a DSLR doesn’t extend beyond using the kit lens and flicking the mode switch to ‘Auto’, then the iPhone 4S may very well give you better results straight out of the camera some of the time.

Realistically, the iPhone 4S isn’t a DSLR-Killer.

You sacrifice the instantaneous mechanical shutter, the fast and accurate autofocus system, and rapid burst shooting for starters.  That’s not to mention that the iPhone’s fixed lens can only offer digital zoom, which for casual users is likely to be the thing they miss most.

So whilst my Canon won’t be gathering dust on the shelf just yet, today just got a whole lot bleaker for my already under-used Fuji compact…


iPhone 4S Queue at O2 Store in London

iPhone 4S Queue at an O2 Store in London


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